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Margaret Beckett: I entirely accept my hon. Friend’s point that Iran and Syria are countries of great significance in the region. We have said that continually, which is why we have maintained contacts with them and why we continue to aspire to being able
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to make those contacts on a much more friendly and open basis. My hon. Friend will know, however, that it is not always easy to make a friend of someone who keeps trying to spit in your eye.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Margaret Beckett: I apologise to my hon. Friend, but I must get on. I realise that I have been speaking for half an hour.

Iran must also meet its international obligations and standards in the way it treats its own people. After China, Iran executes more people than any other country in the world. Recently, for example, 10 Ahwazi men were sentenced to death for alleged terrorist activities, although we understand that the men did not have adequate access to lawyers and that the trial was held behind closed doors. We urge the Government of Iran to allow those men a fair and public hearing.

As for Syria, we continue to be concerned about the nature of its involvement in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. We recognise, however, that some positive steps have been taken recently. The Syrian Government have re-established full diplomatic ties with Iraq, the Syrian Foreign Minister has visited Baghdad, and the Iraqi Interior Minister has been to Damascus to talk to the Syrians about disrupting what the Iraqis perceive to be a flow of fighters and weapons across the Syrian-Iraqi border. President Talabani spoke about the same issues when he visited Syria last week.

On the other hand, I fear that we are still looking for evidence that Syria is ready to play a constructive role in promoting stability in Lebanon, or in supporting President Abbas’s efforts on behalf of the Palestinians. Syria, like Iran, faces a strategic choice: either to act responsibly or to continue to support terrorism and hold back progress in the region. We will continue to engage diplomatically with both countries.

As the Prime Minister has repeatedly stated, progress on the middle east peace process must remain our highest priority. The UK and the international community continue to support the Palestinian people, including through the temporary international mechanism, to which the UK alone will contribute £12 million this year. Last year, the European Union spent €680 million supporting the Palestinians—more than in any previous year.

We welcome the recent agreement between Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas on the release of $100 million in Palestinian tax revenues and on the easing of restrictions on movement and access. These practical steps are an essential foundation to the effort towards a comprehensive peace and a two-state solution, and an end to the cycle of violence.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that, welcome as the increase in aid to the Palestinian people may be, it does not in any way replace the loss of the $90 million a month that the Palestinian Authority do not get because Israel has withheld the revenues that it collected? How can the poverty that is plunging people into real hardship in Palestine be reversed without additional funding to enable services and the functioning of the economy to continue?

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Margaret Beckett: We have continued to provide support, but the right hon. Gentleman is right to say that it cannot make up for the loss of revenues. That is why we have continually urged the Israeli Government to release those revenues and why I am so pleased to see the $100 million now flowing into the coffers of the Palestinian Authority. It is important that we offer our support in order to reduce the humanitarian dangers in Palestine, which I accept are very real.

Mrs. Cryer: My right hon. Friend has not yet commented on the position of women in Iraq, drawing comparisons between their human and civil rights and quality of life now and four years ago.

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend will appreciate that I have now moved on to talk about the middle east, but she has made a fair and legitimate point. She will know that it is now enshrined in the Iraqi constitution that there should be proper rights of the kind to which she refers and, indeed, considerable involvement by women in the governance of Iraq. I expect that she, like me, has met some of the Iraqi women MPs who are playing their part in trying to improve their country.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): May I put it to my right hon. Friend that time is running out for a two-state solution in the middle east, and that, if such a solution proves impossible, we might sooner or later have to contemplate a one-state solution in which Israelis and Palestinians, however painfully, have to learn to live alongside each other in a single state?

Margaret Beckett: Israelis and Palestinians do need to learn, however painfully, to live alongside each other. The alternative is even more appalling. I accept that it is not easy to envisage speedy moves. I do not accept, however, that time is running out for the two-state solution, not least because, although it would be difficult, it is probably the most likely best outcome—if I may put it like that.

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): Given the construction of the barrier wall, razor wire fences, ditches and access roads to Israeli settlements on the west bank, if the Secretary of State believes in a two-state solution, where does she believe the borders of the Palestinian state should be?

Margaret Beckett: The hon. Gentleman is inviting me to talk about the final status negotiations. He will know that it is the express view of the European Union that the basis of consideration should be something along the lines of the 1967 borders. However, exactly where those borders should be ought to be in the hands of the parties, and it will be if we can get the negotiations going.

Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): Will the Foreign Secretary give way?

Margaret Beckett: I am sorry, but I must make some progress.

There have been recent positive developments. The Gaza ceasefire is holding, Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas have met, and I believe that there is a
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new willingness on all sides to address some of the fundamental issues that underpin the conflict. We will encourage and support that, working closely with the Americans and with our EU and Arab partners. The Prime Minister was in the region last month, and I intend to go again shortly. Secretary Rice visited last week, and we then held detailed talks here in London, covering both the need to re-energise the political process and practical ways to support President Abbas and to help the Palestinian people. Our common goal is to see accelerated implementation of the road map, and real progress towards peace and stability for both sides. As the House may know, the next step is a meeting of the Quartet on 2 February.

These points of tension in the region—Iraq, Iran, Syria, Israel-Palestine—all present different problems and demand and deserve individual attention, but they are also affected by, and pivotal to, wider political and economic reform in the region. Long-term stability in the middle east demands a truly comprehensive approach—what the Prime Minister has called a “whole Middle East strategy”. Of course, that means resolving the big conflicts, but it also means helping economies in the region to modernise, create more jobs and attract more inward investment. It means giving young people in the region—men and women alike—the tools and the education to embrace globalisation. It also means making progress towards more open politics, more accountable government and better respect for individual rights.

The challenges that we face in the region should not blind us to significant and positive developments across the middle east and North Africa over the past few years—developments that often have profound implications for the UK. From an admittedly low base, foreign direct investment is now growing. In Egypt, it has risen from just over $2 billion a year to more than $5 billion, including very substantial UK investments. Shell is about to make the largest ever investment by a British company in Qatar. BP is the biggest foreign investor in Algeria.

On the political front, we have seen the first elections in Saudi Arabia, universal suffrage in Kuwait and the most successful elections in Yemen's history. There has been an improvement in the rights of women: in Egypt, women can now divorce; in Bahrain, the Supreme Council for Women has been established; and in Morocco, there is a new, fairer family code.

It would be wrong to overplay such progress but, broadly, it is heading in the right direction. The people in the region are leading that change, but we can help them. We are doing so partly through our political relationships.

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): Will the Foreign Secretary give way?

Margaret Beckett: I apologise to the hon. Gentleman, but I must continue. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The Foreign Secretary has said that she will not take any more interventions. It must be remembered that, to assist Back Benchers, I have put a 10-minute limit on speeches, and interventions have an impact on the ability of Back Benchers to make a speech.

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Margaret Beckett: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I am conscious of that, and that is why I have been trying to make progress.

Certainly, there are many on the so-called Arab street who are suspicious of British foreign policy. However, we are still seen by many local politicians not only as an honest broker in the region but as a close ally and friend. That is one of the reasons why the UK was entrusted with the job, during the Lebanon crisis, of flying the first international envoys into Beirut. It is why, when Libya wanted to come in from the cold, it made contact with the British Government. It is also why we can discuss the reform agenda with the Saudi Arabians through our “two kingdoms dialogue”.

We use that political influence to encourage locally-led political and economic reforms, and back it up with money and expertise. That includes the small-scale but highly targeted work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s global opportunities fund: for example, supporting a youth parliament in Bahrain; teaching business and leadership skills to women in Kuwait; and strengthening non-governmental organisations in Saudi Arabia.

Last November, we hosted the Yemen donors conference in London. More than $4.5 billion was pledged in support of Yemen’s national reform agenda, and we announced a fivefold increase in our own aid programme: about $225 million over the next four years. This afternoon, I shall go to Paris to discuss how the international community can support reconstruction and reform in Lebanon. The UK has already committed more than $50 million to Lebanon, including humanitarian relief and 47 Land Rovers for the Lebanese armed forces. At the Paris conference, I will reaffirm our determination, which is shared across the House, to stand by the Government and people of Lebanon.

Alongside that work, the UK is influencing how the international community spends its money, making support for reform one of the main priorities. During our G8 presidency, the Forum for the Future established a $50 million foundation to support democracy, and a $100 million fund to support regional entrepreneurs. We are strong advocates of the recently proposed EU governance facility, which will provide additional funding to those countries that make the most progress on good governance. The exact size of that fund is still being decided, but we are talking about hundreds of millions of euros.

The challenges that we face in the middle east are complex and, as the whole House recognises, intensely difficult. But they are not completely intractable. The political prize is immense: we can help the people of the region to overcome a legacy of underdevelopment and conflict and give them the chance to carve out better lives for themselves and their families. That is the task to which this Government are committed.

1.25 pm

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): This is a debate for which many in the House have been calling for some time. British troops have been in action in Iraq for nearly four years, and it is high time that the House of Commons took stock of what has happened.
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I say to Ministers that there is also a strong case for a similar debate on Afghanistan in the near future.

Whether we supported or opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003— [Interruption.] There is every variety of view on the Labour Benches about that. We must all, however, face up to the fact that the situation in Iraq now is grim and serious. We must learn from what has happened, not minimise some of the things that have happened. The Foreign Secretary was asked about the number of civilian casualties and gave a figure of 12,500 last year.

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hague: I will certainly do so in a moment.

The UN Assistance Mission for Iraq, however, gives a figure of 34,452 civilian casualties. It is important for the House to get those matters straight.

We know that a great deal is at stake. Given the importance of the issue and the strength of feeling in the House about it, I have no hesitation in saying that the Prime Minister should attend this debate. It is not acceptable to Conservative Members, and quietly unacceptable to many Labour Members—perhaps not so quietly, as they are nodding their heads—who worry about such matters, that the Prime Minister, having been so keen to lead such debates in the run-up to the war when things were going fine, now prefers, with the whole issue in the balance and 130 British lives lost in Iraq, to skulk out of the Chamber to attend to something else.

According to The Sunday Times, the Prime Minister’s spokesman said:

We now have a Prime Minister who never attends debates, “whatever the subject”. The Foreign Secretary indicated that there was hope for a turning point soon, and that the Prime Minister would then make a statement. Where would the House have been in the second world war if Winston Churchill had only come along when a turning point was in prospect or had been reached? It is sad that the Prime Minister prefers the mentality of the bunker to the open thinking of debate.

Mr. Leigh: The Conservative party was sold this war on a false premise. We were lied to by the Government. I keep meeting Conservative Members who tell me that if they knew then what they know now, they would have voted against this war. Will my right hon. Friend say that we will not be dragged down into the mire by this discredited Government? The more we attack this war and our presence in Iraq, the more we speak for the British people.

Mr. Hague: I must say that I do not fully agree with my hon. Friend about that. I voted for the invasion of Iraq, as did the great majority of the House, and I think that the problem has been in the execution and the inadequate planning for the occupation of Iraq, on which there is also a wide consensus across the House.

Mr. Kilfoyle: I suppose that my question has been slightly stolen. I take on board the right hon.
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Gentleman’s comment that we must face the facts as they are now, and every sensible person accepts that. Given the Government’s reluctance to apologise for taking us down a road to war on that false prospectus, will not he and his colleagues on the Opposition Front Bench apologise for also taking that route? The evidence presented to him was no different from the evidence presented to all those who took a different view and were shown to be right.

Mr. Hague: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I do not think that it is up to the Opposition to apologise for believing the Prime Minister’s assurances to the House. I take a different view, in any case. I believe that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was right, but that the failure to plan for the aftermath of that has been a tragic mistake and that we are now living with the consequences.

I believe, and I think that the hon. Gentleman would agree with me about this, that if we did support the war, we must recognise that in many respects it has gone wrong— [Interruption]—as we did; and we must have the humility and thoughtfulness to learn from that. That is one of the tragedies of the Prime Minister not coming to a debate like this. I want to concentrate my remarks on what should happen next, but it is important to point out that there is something of a consensus across the House on where matters have gone wrong. It was the majority feeling in the House in March 2003, as the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain)—now Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—put it, that:

But I suspect it is now also the majority view of the House that, as the Secretary of State for International Development told the Fabian Society recently:

The right hon. Gentleman said:

That is the voice of a member of the Cabinet, and that is precisely my view.

These errors do indeed appear to have been fundamental, and without them we need not have had the parlous situation that we have today. We also know, from documents published in recent months, that much military advice to send a vastly larger number of troops to Iraq from the United States to help control the country after the invasion was ignored, and that those in the US State Department who attempted to plan for the administration of the country after the invasion were sidelined.

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